Over the past months, as I’ve journeyed across the web investigating pirate websites I found that many shared something in common (besides stealing content to profit off the work of others). Along with illegal downloads to popular movies, often times the sites deliver pop-up ads for MacKeeper software, a product of Silicon Valley based Zeobit.
Ads and piracy go hand in hand. It’s how pirate sites make money. Ads appearing on such sites run the gamut from Progressive Car Insurance to online sex chat, but more often that not it seems, I’m greeted by an advertisement for MacKeeper.
Had these ads been an isolated incident, it wouldn’t bother me. Unfortunately as far as MacKeeper goes, it’s not limited to an ad or two here and there. In fact, if you were to asking me the most common advertisement that pops up to fill my computer screen via pirate downloads, it’s MacKeeper. Below are just a few examples that I’ve recently come across after clicking an illegal download link that I was investigating.
MacKeeper’s advertising methods have generated controversy in the past, not because of the fact the company seems happy to partner with pirates, but because of their ubiquity. According to a story published on Cult of Mac, the software itself isn’t particularly popular among Mac aficionados for this reason. The company’s PR director Jeremiah Fowler explained their approach to advertising to the Cult of Mac’s Leander Kahney this way:
Legitimate Mac Users who are annoyed or tired of our advertising campaigns or partner’s campaigns. Do we advertise? Yes! Do we advertise aggressively, I would not like to use that term but we do have a massive advertising presence online! [emphasis added] We have had 15,000,000 downloads of MacKeeper and have a less than 3% refund rate. The reality is that many people are truly happy with the product even if they hate the advertising (and unfortunately some do). The bad part is some people take their hatred for advertising to a level where they dedicate hours of their lives to making MacKeeper a “Forum Punching Bag”… In a perfect world there would be no advertisements on radio, TV, billboards or the internet, but this is not a reality. As long as there are ads, there will be people who hate them.
We believe that we have a great product and we want people to know about it and the only way to do this is to explore every medium of advertisement. [emphasis added] It is like investing everything in to a great restaurant and hiring the best chefs, buying the best food only to hide the location somewhere in the woods and then tell no one about it. Then wondering why no one comes to your restaurant? We are discussing phasing out our ads and trying to please the vocal minority, but we realize that pleasing everyone is impossible.
It’s not the ads or the product that I mind, it’s where their ads appear. Given the fact the MacKeeper ads pop-up more often than not on pirate downloads, I think it’s safe to generalize and say they must send a great deal of money the pirates way. As Mr. Fowler made clear in his conversation with Cult of Mac, the company views its advertising methods as good business. Never mind, it seems, who they are doing business with.
I attempted to reac Zeobit for comment, but as is usually the case with Silicon Valley tech companies, transparency is not part of their business plan. (Updated 4-24-13 in blue) Following the publication of this blog post, I did actually receive an email from Jeremiah Fowler (quoted above). His response included the following:
As you know we are a software company and illegal software pirating is one of the biggest threats to our livelihood and that of our entire industry. Software is vulnerable in the very same ways that an artist or musician would be impacted. It is a fact that when no one buys a movie, album or software application, there will be no money to invest in future projects or research and development. You can quote me when I say In straight terms “we do not support illegal downloading and we think that it sucks”.
These pirate websites are actually partnered with major Ad Networks and Media Buying Agencies and not MacKeeper. We purchase only impressions or click units and the Ad / Media companies dictate on what websites where they will appear and how often they appear on millions of basically nameless websites across their network. The only reason you personally see so many of our ads is because we buy ads that target only your operating system and nothing more. These guys can only filter ads between Mac or PC and very little else. We advertise on a relatively large scale with the biggest networks to make sure that people actually do buy our software and we do not partner with these sites where people will not buy anything anyway because the whole reason they are on that particular site is to steal. It is a total waste of money for our ads to even be displayed on these channels, but that is also why you see ads for insurance and other random things because these companies just have millions of sites in their network and throw ads based on purchased space or clicks. The flaw is in the terms and conditions of what type of sites these ad networks will allow for the delivery or their customer’s ads. As far as being against illegal downloading we are actually on the same team.
While I understand full well that MacKeeper is a software company and that software is as vulnerable to piracy as are other forms of digital content, I find little satisfaction in his explanation as to why the ads so often pop-up on pirate websites. I in fact do use a Mac and ironically actually OWN the MacKeeper software. I’m well aware that today’s browsers can identify one’s operating system (as well as one’s web history), otherwise it’s likely I would see ads for their PC product.
However, the fact that browsers are smart and “Ad Networks and Media Buying Agencies” partner with these sites, does not absolve Zeobit (or any advertiser) from responsibility in when it comes to the issue of brand-supported piracy. It’s easy to blame the messenger, but why aren’t these companies demanding more oversight on behalf of ad servers? Certainly Zeobit is not the first company to employ the “we can’t control where our ads appear” excuse. I’m asking why not?
As I told Mr. Fowler in my response to him, when companies advertise in print publications, they are acutely aware of where their ads are placed and what editorial content appears next to them. When it comes to the internet, however, these same companies seem content to participate in an online free-for-all where the goal of saturating web visitors with ads for their products–no matter what site the ads are linked to. I must point out one obvious exception to this–somehow these ad servers do avoid porn sites, so their must be some vetting/filtering going on at some level. Why can’t this happen for sites that are engaged in promoting (illegal) downloading? If companies that pay for advertising are against online piracy, why not withhold their business from ad servers that do “partner” with such sites?
Ironically, the company touts its belief in “social responsibility” on its website’s front page. It seems that their view of “social responsibility” does not extend to creator’s rights. It’s shameful that the company doesn’t take action to prevent their ads from subsidizing what is, essentially, illegal activity.
For the record, Zeobit receives an A- on the Better Business Bureau’s review website. From my perspective, the company should receive an F when it comes advertising accountability. Per usual, profits trump ethics.